Treating the Mentally Ill Before It's Too Late

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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(Photo: Joe Toreno)

(Photo: Joe Toreno)

Laura’s Law could provide a middle ground between the old norm of total institutionalization and the new one of total abandonment. But, as Jeneen Interlandi investigates, the statute is struggling to reconcile forestalling tragedies with patients’ rights.

Interlandi's Pacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, January 04. Until then, an excerpt:

For at least a year before he shot and killed Laura Wilcox, Scott Thorpe had been convinced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was out to get him. He told his older brother Kent that they had planted a chip in his brain and were using it to track him. He was certain that at some point he and the lead agent in charge of his case would end up in a big shoot-out, and that this shoot-out would determine his fate. In secret, he took pains to prepare for this reckoning: He converted his farmhouse into a battle fort, covering windows, barricading doors, and storing weapons and ammunition in every room, as well as in his truck. He also purchased a gas mask and night vision goggles, just in case.

Kent knew enough to be worried about Scott. Mental illness ran in the Thorpe family; the brothers’ father had committed suicide after a long struggle with depression, and Scott himself had both depression and agoraphobia. It was after a few bad episodes that he moved to a small farm up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Nevada County, California, and settled into a quiet, reclusive life. He was a sweet but bashful soul; his neighbors would later tell inquiring reporters how he couldn’t bear to slaughter his own pigs, and how when he got too anxious to leave his house, they would bring him groceries.

Scott had been a patient at the Nevada County mental health clinic for several years, and, by the end of 2000, Kent had spent several months trying to convince the psychiatrist there to have his brother committed to a psychiatric hospital, involuntarily if need be. He wanted Scott to be protected from himself until his illness could be brought under control. But the psychiatrist would not return Kent’s calls, and on the few occasions when Kent actually did get through, he would only cite patient privacy laws and decline to talk further. Kent’s wife Sharon had also pleaded with the psychiatrist to hear them out. We aren’t trying to obtain information, she explained. We’re trying to provide it. It was no use.

As court records and an internal audit would later show, Scott’s doctor knew very well how sick he was. But involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations are expensive, and the county was strapped financially. There was no inpatient psychiatric facility in Nevada County, and there were hardly enough beds in the surrounding counties for the patients who wanted care, let alone for those who did not.

So nothing was done. And on January 10, 2001, Scott decided that his moment of reckoning—the day of his big shoot-out—had finally come. When he arrived at the mental health clinic for a scheduled appointment, he picked up the gun he’d been carrying around in his truck, entered the building, and fired several rounds through a glass windowpane, killing two people: Pearlie Mae Feldman, a 68-year-old caregiver who was visiting someone in the building, and Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student who was filling in at the front desk during her winter break. He then drove to a nearby restaurant, where he believed his food was being poisoned, and shot and killed Mike Markle, a 24-year-old manager.

Only afterward—after the killings, and his arrest, and the trial that followed—did the state finally remand Scott Thorpe, permanently, to a psychiatric facility down in Napa County.

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